In 1917, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed and sent out to the states for ratification. The amendment, if passed, would ban the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. It took some time, but the amendment was eventually ratified in 1919 and implemented in the everyday life of Americans by 1920. Although the sale of alcohol was now illegal, secret speakeasies and other underground bars still roared with activity. It immediately became apparent that anyone who could satisfy the formidable thirst of the American population would make a fortune. While flashy, less-subtle bootleggers like Al Capone took up most of the prohibition spotlight, other enterprising criminals carved out their own empires of alcohol.
Rumrunners shipping illicit goods into the United States from the Caribbean posed a constant problem for the U.S. Coast Guard. Marie Waite was one of these smugglers, but she had a relatively late rise to power in the rumrunning scene. This was because the “Bahama Queen” of rumrunners, Gertrude Lythgoe, dominated smuggling in the Caribbean for the first half of the 1920s. In those years, Marie Waite restrained her ambitions while her husband, Charlie Waite, became a prominent smuggler in his own right. Nevertheless, a power vacuum opened up in the middle of the decade—Gertrude Lythgoe retired from the smuggling business in 1925 and Marie’s husband, Charlie, died during a shootout near Biscayne Bay, Florida, in 1926. Shortly after Charlie Waite’s death, Marie began her own bid for power in the Caribbean and soon proved that she had a keen eye for the trade. And so began the reign of “Spanish Marie.”
Spanish Marie made a fortune by creating an adaptable smuggling route leading from Havana, Cuba, to various locations in southern Florida. At the height of her power, she fielded an armada of fifteen ships, which were usually dispatched in caravans of four. From her position on the flagship of the flotilla, a vessel named Kid Boots, Marie used radio-transmitted codes to keep in contact with her ships and to evade the U.S. Coast Guard. Yet, if a caravan did manage to be caught, at least one ship was usually armed for battle. By 1927, Marie Waite managed to position herself as the leading rumrunner of the Caribbean through the use of bribery, intimidation and smart administration.
Spanish Marie’s heyday, however, was cut short. On March 12, 1928, the U. S. Coast Guard captured Marie Waite while she was personally offloading more than 5,000 bottles of alcohol onto trucks waiting near Miami, Florida. In a mysterious end to her tale, she was released on bail and virtually disappeared, both from the law and, supposedly, from rum-running. It was a decent time to retire and go into hiding—the Prohibition era was coming to a close and would end, in 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Rum Runner ship “Linwood” set afire by her crew to scuttle her and destroy evidence. Contraband is seen on the deck. Photographed by the U.S. Coast Guard, c. 1923. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).